We face a time of great global challenge. Before us lie many risks, and many choices.
As Australians, we carry into that challenge the most precious of gifts: our nation is entwined with the wisdom and resilience of 60,000 years of Indigenous culture.
I honour the enduring custodianship of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of Canberra. I acknowledge the Indigenous Australians who are here with us today.
The Long View, Two Years On
Two years ago, I spoke at the National Press Club for the first time.
I spoke about how crisis and challenge have been pivotal to Australia’s national story.
When the chips are down, Australians are willing – in a way that is quite unusual around the world – to throw off old ideas about society and government, and make big, gutsy choices about the future.
From the Depression of the 1890s came our Federation, built on a national commitment to equality, delivered through the aged pension and the Harvester Judgement.
From the existential shock of the Second World War emerged our proud, multicultural Australia, and a new place for our country in the world.
The long malaise of the 1970s gave birth to a reform agenda that led to the longest period of continuous economic growth of any country, anywhere in recorded history.
In each case, a period of intense challenge led to radical, uniquely Australian solutions to the problems we confronted. Each time, we did it together. As one country, with humility, humour, ambition, bravery and resolve.
When I last spoke at the Press Club, I was an Opposition junior frontbencher with a lot of ideas but perhaps not a lot of power to do much about them.
Today, I speak from a different perspective: deeply honoured to be a part of a new government that can, will and must change how our country thinks about its future.
So today I want to do three things.
I want to speak about the generational challenge that faces Australia.
I want to talk about what that challenge means for Home Affairs.
And, I want to describe how our government is reimagining the work of my department to help Australia take it on.
The Generational Challenge
The Department of Home Affairs was recreated in 2017 to protect the domestic security of our country.
That’s only five years ago. But there would be few five-year periods in which Australia’s national security picture has changed so much.
It is overwhelming to list all that has occurred: a one-in-100 year pandemic; bushfires which burned millions of acres of land and covered our cities with choking smoke; cyberattacks which saw vital personal information stolen from millions of Australians. Three big shifts stand out as most important.
When Home Affairs was created, the discussion about climate change and national security was largely academic, indeed, it was derided by the former government. Just five years on, climate change is a recognised, growing part of Australia’s national security picture.
Climate change is creating massive movements of people that may become unmanageable. Natural disasters already force 21.5 million people from their homes each year. In our region, this – alongside foreseeable food and energy shortages – will be big vulnerabilities we need to work with our neighbours to address.
Climate change is creating natural disasters at rolling frequency. For affected citizens, these disasters can be life-shattering. From a security perspective, their management is a hugely consuming exercise for government and the community. This, in itself, is a national security risk.
What I am most worried about is cascading disasters. Imagine a future January, where we see a Black Saturday-size bushfire in the South East, a major flood in the North, then overlay a cyberattack on a major hospital system in the West. Our country would be fully absorbed in the management of domestic crises. Then consider how capable we would be of engaging with a security issue in our region.
The changing global environment and domestic security
In the 40-odd years since I was born, we have looked out into a region where there was a sense of inevitably increasing wealth and democratisation. That is clearly changing.
China is a hugely powerful influence over our friends and neighbours. And we have learned a lot in the last five years about how this big and powerful country will exert its will in the years to come.
Even beyond our region, the global world order is shifting and creaking. Big state politics is back, and there is clear, coordinated competition between authoritarian countries and democracies.
These are big global movements, and Australia’s role in them is of course led by the PM, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.
They are important to my work because they also have significant domestic security implications. And that, in large part, is due to technology.
During past periods of intense global competition, the security of Australians wasn’t really affected until we actively joined a conflict. Today, new tools of statecraft are bringing what might otherwise be global security issues into the everyday lives of our citizens.
It’s felt in our economy, where we are waking from a cyber slumber.
It’s felt in our private lives, where our identities are vulnerable and personal information is at risk.
It’s felt in business and research, where Australia’s hard-won innovations are at constant risk of theft.
And it’s felt in our democracy, where foreign actors are trying to influence decisions in our parliaments and universities, and subjecting Australians to online misinformation and disinformation campaigns which spread like viruses around our communities.
When you put all this together, it’s simple but stark.
Our Government’s view is that Australia faces the most dangerous set of strategic circumstances since the Second World War.
And, those circumstances are having real impacts on Australians, when they are at home.
What does this mean for Home Affairs?
Peter Dutton was the first Minister for Home Affairs in the Department’s current incarnation, indeed, he was its chief architect.
He spoke at the Press Club in 2018, shortly after he had taken on the job.
The speech is a fascinating description of his vision for the Department. He talked about boats and borders. He talked about terrorism and child exploitation. He talked about bikies, organised crime, illicit drugs and deportations.
It included, naturally, a Duttonesque sprinkling of light moral panic.
It you strip out all the politics, he describes a Home Affairs Department focused on genuinely important issues.
But it’s an oddly-narrow view of Home Affairs – one designed to tackle a fundamentally different national security environment than the one I have described to you today.
To protect the domestic security of our nation, Home Affairs must continue its important work, as set out in 2017.
But it must also do some of its old work in new ways.
And, it must do some new work entirely.
In the category of ‘old work in new ways’ for Home Affairs, let’s start with cybersecurity.
In September and October this year, Australia experienced the two worst cyberattacks in our history, within three weeks of each other.
Two months ago, the National Australian Bank told Australians that they are subject to 50 million attempted cyberattacks a month; the Australian Taxation Office, 3 million a month.
This threat is huge, it is relentless and it is only getting bigger.
Cybersecurity is suddenly a hot topic, in the boardroom and at the kitchen table.
Our government has commitment and resolve to fix this. But it is going to take time. Better cybersecurity for Australia means all businesses and citizens changing how they engage with the internet. We need to prepare for more major cyber-attacks over the coming years as we undertake this important work.
The truth is, we are unnecessarily vulnerable. We did not do the work nationally over the last decade to help us prepare for this challenge. Prime Minister Morrison’s decision to abolish the Cyber Security Ministry when he came to office was a shocker.
Let me say briefly what has been done since the Albanese Government was elected.
For the first time, Australia will punch back at the hackers through a collaboration between the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Signals Directorate. This will be a 100 person team, permanently focused on hunting down people seeking to hack our systems, and hacking back. It will take some time to get this singing, but when it does, it will change the game for cyber in Australia.
We have made some big changes to how the Australian Government responds to cyber incidents. We have legislated a proper penalties regime under Privacy Law, and taken leadership of a new global disruption effort under the 36-country Counter-Ransomware Initiative
I’m a big believer in good analysis after a crisis. Our government has asked one of Australia's foremost cybersecurity and telco experts, Rachael Falk, to look at what Home Affairs could learn from Optus and Medibank. In the coming months, we will translate the power of work she has done into policy reform.
Optus and Medibank were terrible events. I felt them deeply, my family was caught up in both. It’s now my job to turn this set of disasters into a permanent step change in cybersecurity for the country.
I want Australia to be the world’s most cyber-secure country by 2030. I believe that is possible. But we need a reset, and a pathway to get there. That’s why today, I am announcing a major program of work to develop a new Cyber Security Strategy for Australia.
The Cyber Security Strategy will help Australia:
Bring the whole nation into the fight to protect our citizens and our economy.
Strengthen critical infrastructure and government networks
Build sovereign cybersecurity capabilities, so we can stand on our own two feet
Strengthen our international engagement so Australia can be a global cyber-leader, and work in partnership with our Pacific neighbours to lift cybersecurity across our region
This project will be led by three experts: Andy Penn, who – lucky for us – has just rolled off as CEO of Telstra and has agreed to devote his incredible intellect and energy to this national effort. Rachael Falk, who I mentioned earlier has helped us manage the policy response to Optus and Medibank will also join this team. Mel Hupfeld, former Chief of Air Force, will lend his hugely significant national security experience to the project.
In addition to this Australian expertise, some of the biggest cyber guns from around the world love the scale of our ambition, and they’ve agreed to help. Former UK National Cyber Security Centre CEO and eminent Oxford University Professor Ciaran Martin will lead a global cyber expert panel, who will ensure our work really is world-leading.
Across government, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher will work with me on the government-facing aspects of the Strategy, and Assistant Minister Tim Watts will lead our international focus.
We have the burning platform, we have the mandate for change, we’ve genuinely got the best minds on this problem. Now, it’s time to translate that into a more cyber-secure Australia.
Countering Foreign Interference
Each year, ASIO provides an annual assessment of our national threats. In this years’ assessment, ASIO Director General Mike Burgess, told Australia that for the first time, espionage and foreign interference have replaced terrorism as the most significant domestic security issue we face.
Espionage and foreign interference threaten the things that we value most about our country: our social cohesion, our trusted democracy, freedom of thought in our academic sector. This is a fight that really matters.
We need an ambition and scale of response that matches the size of the problem. We’ve got to strip the politics out of the conversation. This problem is not limited to the actions of one or two countries. Under the former government, the way politicians talked about Foreign Interference was over-politicised and frankly a bit xenophobic. And any security expert will tell that that approach is deeply counterproductive.
ASIO Director General Burgess has said repeatedly: our best asset in this fight are the Australian people. And within that, our loved, loyal diaspora communities. My experience dealing with this problem is that most people who might be targets of foreign interference, or be in its orbit – politicians, academics, community leaders – desperately want to fight back.
Part of the next phase of our policy response will be to open up a bit, and focus on arming the people who need to understand this problem with usable information. We will do that through a direct program of engagement with possible targets of foreign interference, to help them understand what foreign interference looks like and what the playbook is.
And, help them understand what they can do to protect themselves, so they can help protect our country.
Immigration as the third area of existing work where an evolution for Home Affairs is required.
The global challenges we face are enormous. Why wouldn’t we ask the best and brightest from around the world to come and help us tackle them?
Yet today, our immigration system isn’t fit for purpose. It’s complex, it’s bureaucratic, lacks strategy, it’s expensive, and glacially slow. It’s not serving the needs of our country, of business, or of migrants.
Under the former government, the debate centred almost exclusively on how we keep people out, rather than who do we want in, and how do we get them here.
We are in a fierce global competition for talent, but our competitors are well into the marathon while we’re noodling around at the starting blocks.
When we came to government, there were almost a million unprocessed visas just sitting in the system, in the middle of the biggest labour shortage we have faced since the Second World War. To me, that was emblematic of the lack of interest by former ministers in this so foundational task of the Australian Government.
Due to sheer inertia, the system had defaulted to bringing in high numbers of temporary, low-skilled workers, who churned through the labour market.
As a result, Australia has a problem today we have always studiously avoided: a large underclass of undocumented migrant workers living in our country, who are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. That is not what a world-class migration system looks like.
And, it’s completely out of step with Australia’s hugely-successful historical focus on migration based on permanency, citizenship and fair rights for workers, no matter where in the world you come from.
Determining who should be invited to join us in our national endeavours is one of the most important things the Australian Government does. And we’re taking a run at fixing it, as part of a big piece of work being led by former Secretary of the Treasury, and of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson AC PSM.
New things altogether
I’ve talked about cybersecurity, countering foreign interference and immigration as three areas where the work of the department needs to evolve to help us confront the challenges ahead.
I want to now mention three new areas of work we are undertaking.
The first is in relation to climate change.
Our government, under the leadership of Minister Murray Watt, will be the first in Australian history to run disaster management as a centralised, well-coordinated, enduring function of the Australian Government.
It’s time to stop feigning shock at supposedly once-in-a-generation floods and fires and storms. The world has witnessed a tenfold increase in the number of natural disasters since the 1960s. This will get worse as the world warms further.
We need disaster management to be a routine, seamless, well-practised function of government, so that when multiple disasters strike, government and the community are not fully consumed by them.
We are the developed country in the world most at risk due to the warming climate. In national security, the former government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of climate change was foolish, dogmatic and reckless.
Peter Dutton approached Home Affairs with a posture that was reactive to the issues, and reactionary in the politics. It didn’t make us any safer. And I would like to change it.
We know a lot about the security environment we are heading into. Some events are easily foreseeable. Yet, we have not seriously considered what it will mean for us on the home front.
As we enter a period of increased competition in our region, will Australia be able to get what it needs from the world? Are we too reliant on some countries for things we cannot survive without, and what should we do about it? As the national security implications of climate change are better understood, what do we need to do beyond better preparation for natural disasters?
Today I announce two major new pieces of work that will occur in my Department.
The first will focus on national resilience. The output will be a clear, cross-government picture on the homefront implications of the climate and security environment, and recommend to Government the steps we should take to ensure Australians can continue to live a life of security and prosperity while global issues play out around us.
The National Resilience Taskforce will work to explore how Australia can be better placed to deal with shocks and crises. This will include looking at whether we have the right legislation and authorities to manage national challenges, how we are anticipating future shocks, and what we need to do to bounce back quickly – especially if we are confronted with multiple, concurrent events.
The second is a significant piece of work on the resilience of Australia’s democracy. Why is this a national security issue? Because in our quest to keep Australia safe in the coming decades, democracy is our biggest national asset. We need to protect our national assets.
And, because competitor countries are seeking to undermine our democracy, and we need to fight back.
Their intention is to justify authoritarianism by making it look like democracy is inherently dysfunctional. And, to weaken countries like ours, and to constrain us from responding to global situations our adversaries may create.
The taskforce will consider the large amount of work already being done on democratic resilience, including the insights and expertise of Australia’s civil society.
- work completed by the Democracy 2025 partnership between Professor Mark Evans and the Museum of Australian Democracy
- the Group of Seven and the OECD’s work on resilient democracies
- academic research into social capital and trust both among citizens, and between citizens and government.
We know that foreign interference, misinformation and disinformation are on the rise. We need to reduce our susceptibility to these efforts, which will include thinking about a new generation of initiatives in civics and social cohesion. And, we need to explore what we can do with tech companies to reduce the spread of polarisation and falsehoods.
Australians can get pretty down on our democracy. There are good reasons for that, and indeed, a bit of Australian scepticism in the world of politics is a very healthy thing.
But politicians like me need to tell a better story about Australia’s world-leading democratic history.
We are the sixth oldest democracy in the world. We are the great democratic innovator: the inventor of the secret ballot, one of the first in the world to give women the right to vote. We have very high participation in our democracy, and a strong and independent electoral commission, where politicians do their bit, and respect the result. An independent media, that despite its many challenges, does a bloody good job. We have a hell of a lot of be proud of.
Labor’s first female parliamentarian, Dorothy Tangney, said in her first speech to the Senate in September 1943, when Australia was, of course, at war: “We shall we make this country what it should be, a model for all other democracies to follow.”
One of the most powerful things Australia can do for the world is prove that democracy works. We cannot allow the global debate to settle in the lazy thinking of false equivalencies, where all political systems are somehow morally equal. They are not.
People should choose their leaders. To me, to us, this is a truism. But democracy is not just a political system. It is a mindset. About community, pluralism, tolerance, rationality, choice and freedom.
And yet, trust in democracy is in substantial decline in Australia and around the world, and polarisation and populism are on the rise. And we cannot stand by and do nothing.
I have had many discussions with global democracy experts over the past six months. This is a much admired problem. Many can explain the shapes and contours. No one seems to know what to do.
In this, I want Australia to lead the way again. What can we do – concretely – about the problems our democracy faces, so Australia can be the Light on the Hill. This will be the work of the new Strengthening Democracy Taskforce in the Home Affairs Department.
Let me quickly summarise.
To prepare Australia for what is to come, our government is reshaping the work of Home Affairs. We will continue our strong focus on critical national security issues such as terrorism. We will evolve how we work in some key areas – I have mentioned cyber, foreign interference and immigration. And, we must engage in new areas of work: a focus on national resilience, and the strength of our democracy.
What kind of national security conversation will make us safe?
Let me finish by saying something brief about the tenor of our national security conversation.
I want to ask everyone here to consider what assumptions they have about what strength in national security looks like.
Are the people who keep us safe those with the harshest words and the biggest, scariest rhetoric?
If that were the case, we would be brilliantly positioned for the challenges we face after nine years of Peter Dutton in key national security roles.
In this crucial national discussion:
We should never conflate chest beating with strength.
We should never confuse fighting words with resolve, and the commitment and ability to deliver.
Part of the problem with the old, broken conversation of the last nine years was the endless, rampant politicisation of every area of Australian public policy.
It was not just a wasted decade in energy policy, and economic reform. It was a decade where we could have done so much more to make our country safer.
Yet in national security, so much policy was designed, not to make Australia safer, but to bludgeon or wedge Labor.
Our government is taking a different approach. The PM has made it clear to his Cabinet: the threats we face are serious and urgent, our response cannot and will not be driven by politics.
We need determined, clear-eyed analysis, and steely, calm, methodical delivery. Scalpels, not sledge hammers. And that is what we are getting from the PM, the DPM and the Foreign Minister.
In Defence, Richard Marles is a person of depth and vision. With his single-minded determination to make our country safer, faster, he has put us on a path to revolutionising our ability to defend ourselves. I’m so grateful for the work he is doing, not just as a colleague, but as an Australian.
In Foreign Affairs, look at the mess that was left for Penny Wong. Our global reputation in real trouble, the leader of one of our closest allies driven to call our then Prime Minister a liar. Our failure to recognise the climate crisis created huge tensions with Pacific neighbours. For goodness sake, they couldn’t even get along with New Zealand. Australia’s reputation and role in the world has been comprehensively reshaped by our Foreign Minister in just six months.
Every Australian should sleep safer at night knowing these serious people have charge of these crucial areas of public policy.
Many in the Opposition are good, thoughtful people who know that the approach we are taking – strong, serious, depoliticized – is how we make our country safer. Not by beating our chests and playing the politics of the moment. A better standard of debate than what we saw over the wasted decade would be a good and important thing for our country.
We’re showing up for it. I hope they do too.
My friend, Anika Wells, reminds us that our goal in politics should be to be a good ancestor.
The issues that will define the lives of my children and my grandchildren are not bikies and boat people. They are how Australian governments manage climate change, navigate our interests with regard to China, and protect Australians in the face of the biggest shift in the global world order since the Second World War.
Two ideas are foundational to my approach to politics. When Australia needs to change, we cannot afford to look back. Our goal is transformation, not restoration.
And, I am profoundly optimistic, every day, for my country.
No country is better positioned for a safe and prosperous future than Australia. We have huge power to shape the world around us. But we have to be smart, and agile, about how we prepare our country for what lies ahead. And in particular, how we play this next decade.
If I can play a meaningful role in that, it will be the most important work I do in my lifetime.